The holiday season may be a TV wasteland here in the United States, but in Britain it’s always a veritable fiesta of Christmas specials and Boxing Day bonus episodes. This year, though, the Brits have outdone themselves: A Downton Abbey comedy sketch created for a charity fundraising campaign is better than anything we’ll see on U.S. television until 2015 rolls around—and George Clooney, who makes a cameo, is the least interesting part of the skit.
It’s lovely to see the familiar Downton characters once again, but it’s especially fun to learn that everyone is aware of the show’s tendency toward repetition. In the first part of the sketch, a declaration of family happiness is followed—as it always seems to be on the show—by bad news. A telegram arrives with word that Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has managed to lose the family fortune. “Not again!” says his wife, Cora—and everyone who has ever watched Downton Abbey. The sketch then morphs into a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, with Joanna Lumley (Patsy Stone on Absolutely Fabulous) as an angel, showing Lord G. how terrible life would’ve been if he had never been born. (If you’re wondering why Jeremy Piven shows up as retail pioneer Harry Selfridge, it’s because, like Downton, Mr. Selfridge airs on ITV in Britain.)
In the second part of the sketch, the jokes about Edith’s sad love life, former chauffeur Tom Branson’s unsettled social status, Thomas’ constant plotting, and the dowager countess’s zingers are all topped by a delightful cameo by Downton creator Julian Fellowes. When Lord Grantham points out that it “doesn’t make sense” that his daughters exist if he never did, Fellowes waves him off: “Don’t worry about that. Nobody cares.” Lord Grantham then expresses the righteous anger of many a Downton viewer: “But if someone eats a grapefruit with the wrong spoon, you go berserk?” Fellowes’ response? “Well, yes, but that’s cutlery.”
The real Downton Abbey—without George Clooney, alas—returns to PBS Sunday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m.